Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:12 June 15, 2000 p.14

An Influential Song: Writer Uncovers the Author of "Strange Fruit"

Time Magazine called it "the song of the century," but didn't bother to get its authorship right, attributing the words and music of "Strange Fruit" to its best-known interpreter: black singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959).

Author and four-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter David Margolick has dug into the archives at Boston University, and taken a giant step in setting the record straight, with his terse, compact 160-page book, Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, published last month by Running Press in Philadelphia. He demonstrates conclusively that the song, inspired by a photograph of a Southern lynching of a black man in the 1930s, was written by a left-wing Jewish school teacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), who later achieved a prominent place in history as the man who, with his wife Anne, adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg [the American Jewish couple executed for alleged atomic espionage on June 19, 1953]. [photo of Anne & Abel Meeropol ca. 1930]

Anne and Abel had had two sons of their own, named Lewis and Allan, who died in infancy. Many knew the writer by his pseudonym, Lewis Allan. He was the librettist of operas by Elie Siegmeister, Robert Kurka, Lehman Engel, and Martin Kalmanoff, and lyricist for songs by Earl Robinson, Kurt Weill and others. The book reveals the pen-name's origin, as well as the appropriateness of the void-filling adoptions.

Written in 1938, "Strange Fruit" has had tremendous significance for the socially-conscious in America for six decades, but the income from it is has been modest: "I'm not about to quit my day-job," Robert Meeropol told Aufbau, from his office at the Rosenberg Fund for Children in Springfield, Mass. where he "provides for the educational and emotional needs of children in this country whose parents have been targeted as a result of their progressive activity."

Song had impact on other histories

Margolick interviewed hundreds of individuals upon whom the song has had an impact. Probably the most moving of them for Aufbau readers is the interview with "Brigitte McCulloch, who'd grown up in war-torn Hamburg, [and] came to Chicago in 1957 [as] the twenty-year-old bride of a GI: 'I'd left behind a still-aching Germany with all its guilt and confusion and taboos to embrace this vibrant, confident, and comfortingly normal country,' she recalled. 'My own baggage of horrid memories and guilt became lighter in time until I could almost forget.'" Then, two experiences, which occurred at roughly the same time, helped her to begin confronting, [and contending with,] her past. First, she looked down upon a number tatooed on the arm of a man selling her a piece of fabric. She was [dumbfounded], ashamed, utterly unsure what to do. Soon after, she tuned into a radio program on WFMT in Chicago called "Midnight Special," and heard Josh White sing "Strange Fruit."

It was then that she realized she had to grapple with her own past, or at least that of her family and her nation. "On those Southern trees, along with the black men, hung the murdered Jews, hung all of the victims of violence," she recalled. "And one survived to tell the story, to tear our hearts apart, to make us feel and remember."

David Margolick will talk about his research, and Helene Williams will sing "Strange Fruit" and other songs with words by Abel Meeropol, at the annual meeting of the National Committee to Re-open the Rosenberg Case, Monday, June 19 from 5 to 7 pm at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 68th Street at Central Park West in Manhattan. There will also be a report on the professional premiere of the opera Defendants Rosenberg by the American Jewish composer Ari Meyers, which took place, to rave reviews, at the Kugelblitze cabaret theater in Magdeburg last December.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Text by Lewis Allan, Copyright 1939 (renewed) by Lewis Allan.
Reprinted by permission of G. Schirmer, Inc.

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